Role of fetal and infant growth in programming metabolism in later life

Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc. 1997 May;72(2):329-48. doi: 10.1017/s0006323196005026.


Fetal growth and development is dependent upon the nutritional, hormonal and metabolic environment provided by the mother. Any disturbance in this environment can modify early fetal development with possible long-term outcomes as demonstrated by extensive work on 'programming'. Growth restriction resulting from a deficit in tissue/organ cell number (as measured by tissue DNA content) is irrecoverable. However, when the cell size (or cell protein content) is reduced, the effects on growth may not be permanent. Recent epidemiological studies using archival records of anthropometric measurements related to early growth in humans have shown strong statistical associations between these indices of early development and diseases in later life. It has been hypothesised that the processes explaining these associations involve adaptive changes in fetal organ development in response to maternal and fetal malnutrition. These adaptations may permanently alter adult metabolism in a way which is beneficial to survival under continued conditions of malnutrition but detrimental when nutrition is abundant. This hypothesis is being tested in a rat model which involves studying the growth and metabolism in the offspring of rat dams fed a low-protein diet during pregnancy and/or lactation. Using this rat model, it has been demonstrated that there is: (i) Permanent growth retardation in offspring nursed by dams fed a low-protein diet. (ii) Permanent and selective changes in organ growth. Essential organs like the brain and lungs are relatively protected from reduction in growth at the expense of visceral organs such as the liver, pancreas, muscle and spleen. (iii) Programming of liver metabolism as reflected by permanent changes in activities of key hepatic enzymes of glycolysis and gluconeogenesis (glucokinase and phosphoenolpyruvate carboxykinase) in a direction which would potentially bias the liver towards a 'starved' setting. We have speculated that these changes could be a result of altered periportal and perivenous regions of the liver which may also affect other aspects of hepatic function. (iv) Deterioration in glucose tolerance with age. (v) An increase in the life span of offspring exposed to maternal protein restriction only during the lactation period, and a decrease in life span when exposed to maternal protein restriction only during gestation. These studies show that hepatic metabolism and even longevity can be programmed by events during early life.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Child Development / physiology*
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 2 / etiology
  • Diet, Protein-Restricted / adverse effects
  • Embryonic and Fetal Development / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Liver / metabolism
  • Nutrition Disorders / metabolism*
  • Nutritional Physiological Phenomena*
  • Pregnancy